China has sentenced three Tibetan monks as accessories to murder for having helped another monk burn himself to death in a political protest.
In the closely watched case in Sichuan province, Drongdru, the uncle of the monk who committed suicide, was ordered imprisoned for 11 years for “intentional homicide” in hiding the young monk, Phuntsog, and preventing him from getting medical treatment.
Two other monks were sentenced to 10 and 13 years in prison after a separate trial Tuesday in which they were accused of “plotting, instigating and assisting” in the self-immolation of the 16-year-old monk, according to Tibetan exile groups.
“This is a whole new turn in the way the Chinese state deals with protest. We haven’t seen this serpentine use of the law before,” said Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University. He predicted that the stiff prison sentences for the three monks at Sichuan’s restive Kirti monastery will only exacerbate tensions. “This is going to be seen by Tibetans as a manipulation of the law to intimidate people further.”
The prison sentences were condemned Tuesday by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, run by Tibetan exiles in India, as well as by international human rights groups.
Phuntsog set himself on fire in mid-March and was hidden inside the monastery by fellow monks to prevent him from being taken by the police. He died the next day.
The death triggered six weeks of the most intense clashes between Chinese and Tibetans since riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March 2008. At the end, more than 300 monks were seized from the monastery and Tibetan exiles alleged that two villagers were killed trying to prevent police from taking the monks.
Self-immolations by Tibetan monks had been relatively rare as the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader, condemns the practice, but they have not ceased. On Aug. 15, a 29-year-old monk from Nyitso monastery doused himself with gasoline and burned to death outside local government buildings, also in Sichuan province. The monk, Tsewang Norbu, had been distributing pamphlets at the time, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Tibetan exiles blame tensions at the monasteries on persecution by Chinese authorities. Since 2008, monks have been rounded up repeatedly and forced to attend “patriotic education” sessions in which they are ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge their allegiance to China. In the monasteries where monks have killed themselves, authorities have also cut off utilities as a means of applying pressure.